Wednesday, August 25, 2004


This is one of the best comeback lines of all time. It is a portion of a National Public Radio (NPR) interview between a female broadcaster and US Marine Corps General Reinwald who was about to sponsor a Boy Scout Troop visiting his military installation.

FEMALE INTERVIEWER: So, General Reinwald, what things are you going to teach these young boys when they visit your base?
GENERAL REINWALD: We're going to teach them climbing, canoeing, archery, and shooting.
FEMALE INTERVIEWER: Shooting! That's a bit irresponsible, isn't it?
GENERAL REINWALD: I don't see why, they'll be properly supervised on the rifle range.
FEMALE INTERVIEWER: Don't you admit that this is a terribly dangerous activity to be teaching children?
GENERAL REINWALD: I don't see how. We will be teaching them proper rifle discipline before they even touch a firearm.
FEMALE INTERVIEWER: But you're equipping them to become violent killers.
GENERAL REINWALD: Well, you're equipped to be a prostitute, but you're not one, are you?
The radio went silent and the interview ended.


"Here's my favorite example of a crime-control measure that is evaluated using exactly the wrong data: gun buy-back programs. Politicians regularly tout the number of guns collected as evidence of the programs' success:....

District of Columbia Police Department Press Release: "Saying that lives will be saved as a result, Chief of Police Charles H. Ramsey today announced the Metropolitan Police Department took in 1,787 firearms on Thursday, Friday and Saturday during the first phase of `Operation Save A Life,' the District of Columbia's gun buy-back program. . `Every one of the nearly 1,800 guns collected represents a step towards making the District of Columbia safer, and this weekend's buy-back served both as a national model and as an inspiration for buy-backs HUD is supporting in other communities throughout the nation,' he said."

Another press release from the same source: "`Getting one dangerous and illegal firearm off our streets or out of a home is significant because of the potential pain and tragedy that single weapon can inflict,' said Chief of Police Charles H. Ramsey. `Getting more than 6,200 firearms off our streets and out of our homes is a momentous victory for safer children, safer families and safer communities throughout our city.'"

The problem, of course, is that purchasing a gun doesn't necessarily mean reducing the number of guns in the hands of the public. The gun buy-back might encourage the trafficking of guns into the region, if the price is high enough. If the price is low, it still might encourage people to trade-in old guns so they can purchase new ones (much like when an auto dealership offers to buy your old junker). And even if gun buy-backs succeed in reducing the stock of guns in the hands of the public, who's selling them - criminals, whose livelihoods depend on their guns, or law-abiding citizens who rarely need their guns? While it's possible that gun buy-backs reduce crime, the number of guns collected does nothing to prove it.

When I think about gun buy-backs' effectiveness, I recall the old story (possibly apocryphal, but still instructive) about the town of Abruzzi, Italy:

The city was plagued by vipers, and the city fathers determined to solve the problem by offering a reward for any viper killed. Alas, the supply of vipers increased. Townspeople had started breeding them in their basements. [from S. E. Rhoads (1985), "The Economist's View of the World: Government, Markets, and Public Policy", Cambridge University Press, p. 58]

And I'll bet that one of the city fathers trumpeted the success of the program based on the number of dead vipers turned in for the bounty.

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